In Play Their Hearts Out, George Dohrmann spends eight years chronicling an AAU basketball team, its coach Joe Keller, and its star player, Demetrius Walker.
How much did you know about the world of AAU basketball before taking on the project?
I knew a lot. I worked at the L.A. Times for two years. We did a big project on youth basketball. I lucked in to being one of the lead writers on that. I was sort of a scrub, but was able to find some really good dirt, and shared a byline with some writers far more established than myself.
Was it tough getting the kids to open up to you?
It was and it wasn’t. Initially, the kids were so young that it really wasn’t an issue. It was about gaining the trust of their parents, and Joe, and eventually, as they got a little bit older, it was about trying to connect with them. Demetrius almost instantly opened up to me. I was like this nerdy white kid following him around. If I knew a 50 Cent song he would play a lot, and I would know the words, he would think that was the funniest thing in the world.
What surprised you most during the eight years?
It stunned me the level at which shoe companies were getting involved. There’s a scene before Joe gets his shoe deal. They’re talking about the way they want to market Demetrius. "We don’t care if he makes the NBA, we want to market him right now." The fact that they were moving aggressively into the viral marketing as seventh-graders. I thought I was going to write a book about grassroots basketball, and that’s essentially what it is. But it became so much about the kids, about parenting.
Did Joe Keller always act in the kids’ best interests?
It’s a super complex question. Joe gave (Demetrius) a lot, he fed him, he clothed him, he introduced him to basketball, he gave his life a purpose. He was a father figure for Demetrius. But at the end of the day, why did Joe do all that? Joe did it to make money. I think he started out with the idea that I’m going to be great to this kid forever, and for the first few years, that was very true. Then when he saw the money, and saw that the opportunity to make more money came with leaving Demetrius and leaving the kids, he changed as a person, and he said, "Now it’s about me and my family."
Will you ever take on a project as lengthy as this again?
I hope not. I was sort of throwing around ideas with my wife, and the first question is, "How long is that going to take?"